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What is capacity building?

Author-Avatar gaylbowser@gmail.com

9/16/2019 3:48 AM

When I first began to get to know children with complex communication needs,  I depended heavily on experts.  Every week, students in my classroom were visited by a Speech and Language Clinician, an Occupational Therapist, a Physical Therapist and another SLP who specialized in Augmented and Alternative Communication.  I learned enormous amount from each of these specialists and depended on them to help me make decisions about the types of strategies that each child needed and the communication systems that would help them achieve their goals.  If I thought of a change or innovation in the program for an individual child, I checked with the experts to make sure that what I was suggesting was the right thing to do.

This type of expert model of AT service delivery is very similar to the systems that are used in hospitals and clinical settings.  Expert models generally have formal referral systems in which specialists conduct assessments, make decisions and share those decisions with people who have responsibilities to implement them.  In an expert AAC system, individuals who work and live with people with complex communication needs receive training from a specialist who has lots of experience and, often, a specific organized approach to helping the individual meet communication goals.  One-to-one expert models are applied with the assumption that students require specialized, ongoing AAC expertise in order to learn basic communication skills like those addressed in the Communication Matrix- refusing, requesting, social communication and sharing information.  There’s also an assumption that the everyday work of selecting and programming communication systems, customizing them and planning for implementation of communication programs needs specialized skills that parents, teachers and care givers do not have. 

As I gained experience with my students, I also gained independence.  I was able to apply the knowledge I gained with one student to others with similar communication needs.  My capacity to make good choices about everyday routines and activities that would help my students communicate grew and changed.  I found that I was no longer depending heavily on the experts who visited my classroom and we found that we needed to change our model support services to better match what was needed by classroom staff.

There has recently been a lot of attention given to the idea of service models that focus on capacity-building.  In a capacity-building model,  communication specialists act as a resource to the total team,  teach team members to independently assess communication needs, help guide their decisions about program planning, provide training on an as-needed basis and generally help team members to independently implement a plan to help students develop basic communication skills.  The rationale for a capacity-building model is based on the inescapable fact that experts are not always available when decisions about communication strategies are needed.  In a previous post, Charity Rowland said “Family members and other care providers have the best opportunities to make observations of a child at home and in the community. They know their child’s skills better than anyone, and they need a way to describe those skills in a language that professionals will respect.”  When service providers who support individuals with complex communication needs use a capacity-building approach,  families, educators and caregivers can take ownership teaching basic communication skills throughout every day, individuals with complex communication needs have many more opportunities to practice and apply their newly developing skills and they are more likely to attain their communication goals. 

Experience shows us that in the initial stages of assessment and program development for students with complex communication needs, experts are generally needed to assess the student’s specific strengths and challenges.  But as a program is developed and strategies are identified, it is the people who see the child on a daily basis and have the most frequent contact with an individual with complex communication needs that can take advantage of communication opportunities within everyday routines and activities.  For students with complex communication needs, expert evaluation models and capacity building implementation models work best cooperatively.

Thoughtful analysis of the way support services are used can greatly increase their effectiveness.  But service models are most often determined at the agency level.  It is valuable to occasionally step back and take a look at the way things are done in a program for students with complex communication needs in order to make sure that the systems and procedures encourage the capacity of all to support them. 

Capacity building is the process by which individuals and organizations obtain, improve, and retain the skills, knowledge, tools, equipment, and other resources needed to do their jobs competently. It allows individuals and organizations to perform at a greater capacity. Wikipedia

Capacity building is not a one-time effort to improve short-term effectiveness in an individual situation, but a paradigm that can be applied throughout all aspects of a program.  When expert service providers adopt a capacity building attitude toward the people they support, there is potential for everyone to acquire new skills and independence-especially the individual with complex communication needs.

We will talk more about capacity building in this collection.  But, for now, I want to challenge you to think about these basic questions:
• What do you mean when you think about building capacity to provide effective communication programs for students with complex communication needs?
• Whose capacity do you want to help increase as they support children with complex communication needs?
• What additional skills and abilities do those people need to develop?
• How do the services that you currently provide help or impede the development of those skills and abilities and the ability to apply them independently?

This post is part of the collection

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© 2019 Charity Rowland, Ph.D.

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